Wednesday, December 06, 2006
THE BLACK ICON--Chapter Five
THE BLACK ICON
(The internet version)
by Ivan Prokopchuk
Poland fell under the efficient hum and crash of German war technology. Now Russians moved in from the east "to protect our brothers, the Ukrainians." People in Galicia, caught flatfooted, stood in their village squares watching Russian soldiers, officers, and finally party administrators filing in. In a matter of days, the first fine webs of Party machinery and indoctrination were set up.
Michael Podolsky sait in the village square along with some fifty of his peers and listened to the Russian spiel.
A tall, bespectacled dark-skinned Georgian walked up to the podium and fiddled with his impressive array of fountain pens before launching a stirring speedch on the unity of all Slavs and the joys of Communism.
"In Communism, everything is shared. The land, the wood in the forest, the forest's game--all belongs to you, the people. Here in Tvorog village in the former Polish province of Galicia, you are entitled to haul all the wood you need, kill whatever game you choose and live as you please, rejoicing in common ownership of all the Poles ever-denied you..."
A week later, Stach Girsky was arrested by the Russian authorities for shooting a boar.
"But you said it was lawful to kill game," protested Girsky at his trial. "You said it was all ours."
"Yes, that's true," the magistrate had answered, "but we said 'kill', not shoot.
Not wishing to argue the fine points of wrestling a live boar with his bare hands, Girsky paid the fine.
A few days later, Chyvago Kuprynka was apprehended for chopping wood in the old Crown Forest.
"We said take. We did not mention anything about using an axe," came the commisar's explanation.
From then on, Communism was a bad joke. But the joke would not be funny if the Russians were to institute agrarian reforms, as they did in other parts of the Ukraine. Since the old Austrian Empire, the peasants had always been allowed to keep their land, no matter how heavy the taxing. Even the Poles, to whom Russia had ceded this province of Galicia after the defeat of an independent Ukraine, had respected this right. The taverns hummed with fearful talk. Collective farms, kolkhoz's, these were the things to be feared. All knew of the starvation of six million Ukrainians under Stalin's New Economic Policy of the Twenties. There was talk of a resistance, of an underground.
But the party was apparently uncertain about any imminent "reforms", and the Galicians were allowed to go their own way. The Russians began to work on public projects, bridges and warehouses, ostensibly to win support.
Men like Michael Podolski became very much in demand, and Michael, exibiting the very necessary adeptness at survival no matter who ruled--stepped forward. The pay was sporadic and poor, but it allowed Michael to keep his family fed and clothed, though imminent forced taxation worried him.
With the downfall of Poland, Michael's debts were virtualy erased since he was now loosed from Polish contracts.
But with the new conquerors, nohing had changed. Michael and Sophia were as hard-up as ver, without any immediate prospects for improvement. Fool's gold seemed to be the substance of Michael's carpenter hands.
However, what Michael lacked in wages, he gained in experience. Despite his dislike for Russians, he grew to like his boss, Pyotr Vassyleivich, under whom Michael worked as foreman. Michel could build a frame for a caisson like nobody's business.
Pyotr Vassyleivich, blond, wiry and animated, his hir always falling over his mongoloid features, was in charge of building a bridge across the Prut.
Asked about his contrary East-West face, the Russian blamed it on the "oversexed Mongols" who long ago, had run away with his great-grandmother. He was highspirited, always exhorting workers with his characteristic davai!, a word which in Russian meant anything from "give" to "let's go" to "get you ass moving." Michael often wondered at how Russians could do anything from starting a revolution to getting a slacker out of a construction privy stall withthe catalistic word davai.
Pyotr Vassyleivich was from Vladivostok, a remote eastern city far from the intrigue of of Galicia, which had become by decree, Eastern Poland whether the Ukrainians liked it or not. Pyotr Vassyleivitch was not cognizant of the inter-Slav bitterness that had spilled so much blood over the centuries. He was not concerned about the guilt or innoncence of his fathers, something that had obsessed Ukrainians, Poles and Western Russians for ages.
Pyotr Vassyleivich loved bridges, buildings, the malleability of things, the shapetaking of ideas. He wold discuss engineering with anyone who would listen. Michael listened often. The Galician learned about cantilever bridges, hydraulics, (especially relevant to the Towmach Brook which flooded every spring), Toricelli's Principle.
The Russian grew fond of the quick-witted "Misha". Lonesome, far from home and bored with his dogmatic peers in the town Commisariat, he would go drinking with Michael and other Galicians working on the bridge site.
When Michael had no money, Pyotr Vassyleivich would pay. All Communist officials had money. Lots of it.
Michael would merit blows from Sopha for spending what she thought was their money. She would often hold court:
"You go drinking with that Moscal :(Muscovite) as if he were your best friend," she would rant at Michel as he fened off blows with his overworked, twitchy hands. "Just wait and see what the Russians are going to extract from us."
She wasn't wrong. Within a week, a commissar and two assistants walked off with the Podolski's only cow.
That night, MIchael was beaten for both his own sins and those of the Russians.
On the job, he grew less spurred by Pyotr Vassyleivich's Davai's.
One morning in June, l941, Michel reported for work and found men dismantling heavy equipment and the materials for the unrealized bridge. Pyotre Vassyleivich, devoid of his usual good huour, told Michael that it was all over.
The Russian stood head slightly down, hands in pockets, a brisk wind tugging his baggy, striped pants.over a quilt jacket. "Hitler's coming, Misha.Time to leave. Better go home to your wife and family. We won't need you any more."
On the way home, Michael paused outside a clump of willows on the river's edge, took out the twenty roubles Pyotre Vassyleiivich had given him and pondered why men embrace ideologies.
The first Germans came in immense, box-shaped tanks: long potato-masher turret guns pointing at the sky, unneeded now after the Russian rout. Behind the tanks came troops in orderly ranks, long Mausers over green-univormend shoulders, cylindrical gas mask kits bobbing from black leather belts. Behind these, battalions of brown-uniformed Hungarians, and at the rear, happy, singing Italians.
Once more the village square had uniformed men shouting and gesticulating from a rostrum. But despite the usual propaganda against the masters just vacated, something new was introduced.
"You are now an independent state in alliance with Germany," shouted a squat, leathercoated German civilian.
"As members of this new state, you have the same rights as any German. You can work for Germany, be paid by Germany. Give us your skilled men. We will send them to Deutschland where they will work for high wages. They will work in camps, though given numerous furloughs. They will be paid in German marks, the same as German citizens.
Mornings would find Sophia and Michael arguing, Sophia every so often aking Michael to keep his voice down in order not to wake up Genyk sleeping in his outground crib, a large wire sieve over his face to keep off the flies.
"This is our opportunity, " Michael contended. There is nothing here for us in the middle of this war. Why don't I go to Germany and try it for just a few months. We'll have good money, clothing, Sophia."
"Isn'lt that just like you? Wanting to leave me in the middle of this war, while God knows what is happening to my school mates, the old Jewish kids, herded off to the forest for what purpose? I've been hearing gunfire all night.
We could well be next. The German sergeant told me. Said we were too human to be rational. We were subhuman, like the Jews, he had said."
"Look, be reasonable," Michael pleaded. Germany has stood classical economics on its head. Got people busy and it's a miracle what they can do without money. They ended up in a year or two with the best industrialized set-up in Europe. And now they have money. I can come back with enough money to let us live like human beings."
"And what will I do here all alone?"
:"Keep the house and fields and wait for me. They tell me I can go back home after six months if I don't like their set-up over there."
"But what if they don't let you return?
"Nobody has returned from that forest."
"Don't be silly. In spite of what you think you've been seeing, Germany has always been a civilized country. They just became badly stuck after that awful war.
" These men are gentlemen. They won't go back on their word."
By morning, it was decided. Michael would ge to Germany.
Two days later, Sophia stood on the road, young Katerina and little Genyk tugging at her skirts, watching the packed train leave the depot, the engineer unsmiling.
.............end Chapter Five, THE BLACK ICON